In an enthusiastic review of Alex Miller’s novel Autumn Laing in the Australian Book Review, Morag Fraser worried that, as the novel draws ‘freely on the lives of [Sidney] Nolan and the Heide circle’, the novel will ‘inevitably provoke controversy’, noting that, ‘Some readers may object, claim misrepresentation. But most, I hope, will allow themselves clear space in which to hear the authentic voice of a novelist who is wise, canny and artful.’
The inevitable controversy hasn’t happened. Reviewers, commentators and interviewers seem to have had no trouble accepting the idea that this novel, with a title that immediately recalls Sunday Reed and a narrative that, for at least half its length, consists of incidents derived from Janine Burke’s 2004 biography The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide, is Miller’s vision and to be judged solely as such.
I haven’t been able to locate Fraser’s clear space in this novel. What I have found instead is literary fiction’s equivalent of reality television. Instead of ‘Yes, we know it’s been made to a pre-purchased format with personalities cast for conflict and events pre-scripted for drama, but yes, we still call it “reality”’, we have a fiction that’s based on real people and uses real events from their lives but yes, we still call it fiction. And we accept that Autumn Laing and Pat Donlon, the Reed and Nolan characters, are ‘the products’ as Alex Miller writes, nicely mixing up the industrial with the mythic, ‘of my dreaming’.
Miller himself does not see this as a problem ‘… there is nothing novel in having based these characters on real people. All my major characters in all my novels have been based on real people. I’ve only had one objection …’ In another interview he commented, ‘In fact the character of Autumn Laing – as my wife Stephanie pointed out to me almost as soon as I began working in Autumn’s voice – owes more to Anne Neil, my first wife and a lifelong friend of our family, than she does to Sunday Reed.’
So the book is not about the real Sunday Reed, the real John Reed, her husband, the real Sidney Nolan and Sidney Nolan’s real first wife. And as Miller warned in another article, ‘we must not endanger the poetry of literature by a literal reading’.
Plus the novel has an out clause – it’s revealed in a postscript that the narrator is unreliable. Nonetheless, there are so many close parallels with the originals that everyone, especially Miller himself, keeps straying out of the fictional paddock.
In a Meanjin interview, Miller remarks: ‘[Sidney Nolan] was a hard bugger. Whereas Pat Donlon, who’s the figure in my book based loosely on Nolan, is not.’
‘Well he’s hard enough,’ comments the interviewer.
‘Hard enough, yes,’ says Miller, ‘But he’s not vicious, the way Sid was … Sunday ended in despair, partly because of the way Sid Nolan persisted in treating her meanly and horribly ’til the end. Which was something I don’t think Pat Donlon would do.’
At that point, recalling the hideous poem Sidney Nolan wrote about Sunday Reed more than twenty years after he left her, I would have asked, ‘Would it have been difficult for you to write a book about a man whom you think was vicious?’
But at Meanjin, they were focused on Nolan/Pat’s dilemma: ‘Well no,’ the interviewer says, ‘but Pat removed himself from the scene entirely.’
Miller replies, ‘It was too difficult for him and it wasn’t going anywhere. What was he going to do, be her toyboy?’
And, of course, half the book is imaginary. The chapters set in 1991 are about a Sunday Reed who never existed. The real Sunday committed suicide in 1981, shortly after her husband’s death from cancer. But it is the 1938 chapters that are the core of the book and of the account that the 85-year-old Autumn Laing feels impelled by guilt to write.
It was the guilt that first bothered me. Not her guilt about being ambitious and annexing another woman’s husband, but her guilt about failing to recognise Edith Black’s talent, not being able to ‘see’ Edith’s painting because she, Autumn, was obsessed with modernism. ‘Had she persisted with her art Edith Black may well have been the foremost among the woman painters of her time.’
This seems an improbable conclusion for a person who had spent her life reflecting upon art. Even in her gothic old age, Autumn Laing was unlikely to forget the sheer riskiness of art and the need for drive and ambition as well as talent. Then I realised: Autumn Laing is Sunday Reed without the brains.
Her role is to be handmaiden to the great painter: ‘I will show Pat that his country waits for him. Here I will say to you is the subject and material of your art’. She has the gift, identified for her by her beloved paedophiliac uncle, of ‘recognition’. But even this gift seems only to be exercised once. She reflects that when she and her husband establish a salon of creative friends, ‘More important than my cherished “gift”, I was a good cook and Arthur [her husband] a generous judge of wine.’
Along with the diminished intelligence, Autumn Laing gets that traditional scourge of the woman who sought a role outside the accepted female sphere: hysteria. According to Janine Burke, Sunday Reed was so acutely sensitive that her husband turned into her watcher and keeper. Autumn Laing cannot go off with her young lover because, ‘Without Arthur, I would have been naked in the world and prey to my own instability.’
This terror about her vulnerability dates back to her time as a nineteen-year-old touring Europe with her mother. Like Sunday Reed, Autumn is unable to have children because she had gonorrhoea as a young woman and had to have a hysterectomy. The story is awful enough in Sunday’s case. Her first husband was a man of whom her family vehemently disapproved. While they were in Europe he gave her gonorrhoea and then abandoned her. In Autumn’s case it is all her own fault on a grand scale. She had lovers, and describes herself as ‘indiscriminate and wild’. Her mother couldn’t manage her. She was taken to a psychiatrist, with whom she promptly had an affair. She became pregnant and he procured an abortion. The disease was only discovered after she had married her second husband, the virginal Arthur, who – to maximise the guilt – longed for children.
By contrast, the way in which events are fictionally recast for Nolan/Pat are generally positive. Sidney Nolan essentially deserted his first wife. He spent so much time at Heide with Sunday that by the time his daughter was born, the married couple were living apart. In Miller’s novel this gradual disintegration is converted into an act of violence where Nolan/Pat is the victim. His wife leaves when she realises that he has slept with Sunday/Autumn. Afterwards he goes to their cottage and discovers his brothers-in-law burning his things. They beat him up. He only takes refuge with the Laings because he can’t go home, all bruised and bleeding. His father and his mates would take vengeance on his wife’s brothers. Pat says, ‘There’d be no end to the trouble. I’m not going to put her through that. It wasn’t her fault.’
Finally, and this is the harshest piece of re-envisioning in the novel, Autumn’s role in Nolan/Pat’s art gets shrunk. Instead of an eight-year relationship during which the painter and his patron/muse collaborated, writing daily letters when apart, the hero is already on track to discover his subject and material for himself. Nolan/Pat has found, overlooked in the Laings’ library, a first edition of the journals of Leichhardt and other great explorers and become transfixed by their accounts of the landscape. Autumn resents his preoccupation and feels exploited. When Pat arranges to go to north Queensland with a friend to see Leichhardt’s landscape for himself, Autumn demands to go with them, even though her husband pleads with her to stay and Pat resents her presence. Once there she makes herself useful by writing a pithy account of what Pat must do. He paints their joint vision. On their return home he leaves her, driving off so abruptly that she doesn’t realise what he is doing. She ends up as roadkill on a male artist’s voyage into the landscape.
The impression this leaves is that for all Miller’s declarations of how Autumn Laing ‘inhabited him’ (albeit channelled through his first wife) and took over his novel, he is actually very ambivalent about this woman who turned out to have such a critical role in creating Sidney Nolan’s vision of the outback landscape. It’s difficult not to conclude he would have preferred a proper male hero at the centre of his narrative. In his accounts of how he came to write Autumn Laing, London-born Miller reports he was inspired to come to Australia on his own at sixteen by a book of photographs of the outback that he later discovered had been taken by Nolan. This novel reads as if it was written for that sixteen-year-old. Miller knows he would have been disappointed by the truth.
Alex Miller Autumn Laing, Allen & Unwin, 2012, PB, 464pp, $29.99
Thea Welsh is the author of three novels, most recently The President’s Wife (2010), and the memoir The Cat Who Looked at the Sky.
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